The first thing Red Sea Diving Safari founder Hossam Helmy told me was how pregnant black and white tip reef sharks are the only shore sharks of the 12 species found in the Red Sea. They come to shore to find caves to lie low in because that’s the only place there is a ground current with enough oxygen to allow them to rest and sleep safely in the shallows. The baby reef sharks feed on silverside fish, so when the bait balls arrive, his 10 year old grandson starts looking for them.
This fascinating fact also struck me as an apt metaphor for what Marsa Shagra, the largest of Red Sea Diving Safari’s three dive sites, felt like to me: a haven where I could pause and catch my breath; rest and build up my strength.
We came to Red Sea Diving Safari on the advice of Heba from HEPCA; when I asked her which was the best dive experience on the coast, she didn’t hesitate to recommend them. Ruby had done her PADI Open Water qualification with Pisces Divers in Simonstown the year before we left in preparation for reaching Egypt. So she’d been waiting to scuba in the Red Sea since she was 11 – that was a long 5 years anticipating and I really didn’t want it to disappoint!
Sampson qualified to dive in Jeddah during his time working in the hospital in Saudi before we met and Zola had done his PADI at Pisces during the Ebola hiatus in 2015, so all three Sampsons were amped and ready to explore what the Red Sea had to offer in the absence of surf. I was really glad I hadn’t pushed myself to learn with Ruby back in 2012 ‘cos I sure wasn’t up to it now.
* * *
We’d set off south from Hurghada on the Marsa Alam road on 30th Dec after stocking up with bagfuls of awesome fruit and veg. Ripe figs! Mangoes, kiwis, pomegranates and seriously The Best Strawberries In the World. It saddens me that, having been in charge of all shopping on the west side, I was unable to set foot inside a market the whole time we were in Egypt. Ruby took charge and was repeatedly hit on by men twice her age telling her she was beautiful…
Egyptian roads were some of the best on the continent, brand new highways most of them, but blemished with a ridiculous amount of speed bumps. An appropriate analogy for how Egypt’s paranoia scuppers herself. The state is a massive top-heavy military machine, so focussed on security, it forgets to put the welfare and convenience of its own people first and ends up hampering progress.
That night I was woken. every. hour. by. Monte. The crazy lack of sleep meant I had no choice but to travel in the back, on the bed, because I couldn’t cope with the resultant pain sitting up.
I completely lost my rag on Whatsapp. My brother, temporarily resident in India and investigating Ayurvedic remedies for his own maladies, chose the wrong day to recommend “just rice water and tumeric for breakfast, fruit is too cold” to a woman who’s been crisis managing a chronic illness since 1992…
He was complaining that, despite two whole days of resting up, he’d woken with dodgy bowels again and was feeling very sorry for himself as a New Year’s party was now probably out of the question. I’d been resting up for more than two solid months since I went down in Croatia and was still feeling so shattered, I did not handle this well:
“You do realise this has been my life for 25 years??”
I’d like to thank him for allowing me to rant. The end of 2017 was like I’d let the genie out the bottle. No longer was I going to pretend. I’d hit my limit of hiding my daily struggle from my family, always being empathetic and never expecting reciprocal understanding because I never explained because I didn’t want to waste the energy. Suddenly I had a lot of ground to make up.
* * *
We arrived at Marsa Shagra mid-afternoon and were welcomed by friendly marketing manager George. I was pleasantly surprised by the elegant layout of the place and how it complemented the stark beauty of the environment. It was Christmas week, they were at 75% capacity, but despite there being 160 people there it felt very relaxed and uncrowded.
Those numbers were still too much for Zola. His social anxiety had become increasingly apparent in the last 6 months since his sister had started boarding school and ceased to be a shield for him. Zola has always been quiet – not shy exactly, but always reluctant to talk. He’s far more comfortable in one-on-one situations than group chats, and in public will rarely speak unless spoken to.
He has a self-possessed, self-sufficient quality that was apparent even when he came to us at 6 weeks old, with his thumb, opposite forefinger and big toe in his mouth and quiet eyes as wise as an old man’s. The name we chose for him reflects how powerful his character was, even at that age: ‘Zola’ means ‘calm’ in isiXhosa, as in “for goodness’ sake mother, chillax” – that was the vibe he projected, even as a baby. He was the polar opposite of his loudly demanding sister in every respect, and my reward for surviving her infancy. We were blessed to receive such a determinedly peaceful spirit into our home.
I think it was around the time of his 13th birthday in France, when I apologised to him for not going out to celebrate, like we used to at home, that Zola revealed he didn’t mind because he “didn’t enjoy going to the Bluebird anyway, too many people”. I was so shocked, then horrified that I had never known he was feeling overwhelmed and hating it. He hides his anxiety so well – almost too well: he doesn’t shake or stutter, and always looks at ease – so people around him don’t pick up on his discomfort and he rarely points it out. I flatter myself that I have become much more attuned to his feelings now we have spent so much time together without the whirlwind of his sister blasting his subtle vibrations.
So Zola refused to brave the public eye and go for a swim with Ruby. As a result, despite me feeling dazed with tiredness, I went with her. Thereby choosing to go out in the golden afternoon sunlight over a nap and a chance of going out tonight for New Year’s Eve because I definitely couldn’t do both. (Anyway Sampson was putting up the tent and I couldn’t bear the banging). I sat on the shore while she had a chilly dip then we chatted and made enquiries at the dive station. Again, I was too tired to shower, just added a tin of tomatoes to veggie leftovers before our evening episode of Sense8 and half a pomegranate.
We were in bed at 8pm. ON NEW YEAR’S EVE. Even for me, this was pathetic. My poor teenagers. In vain I suggested they go together to check out the disco up at the restaurant – the lights were twinkling temptingly – but they just got annoyed with me.
Zola’s reluctance I could understand, but Ruby’s attitude was harder to fathom. Her whole life she’s been a social butterfly, but she seemed suddenly far less keen to mingle. Admittedly, she was exhausted after her end-of-year exams and first year back in proper stressful school. And after her experience in the markets, she wasn’t eager to expose herself to any more Egyptian chat-up lines. But I hoped she wasn’t denying herself a night out because she was concerned about the effects of disturbing my rest.
* * *
1996-7 was an intense period of catching up on my lost partying years. Sampson sure got into the spirit of that. Ever the scientist, he once undertook to identify the purest MDMA in Cape Town, so that the toxins in the fillers of the dodgy E’s floating around wouldn’t mess me up. After a month or two of thorough research, my selfless(!) boyfriend declared a winner and we carefully planned to take it after lining my stomach with rice padkos at ‘Dagga Dirk’ Uys’ Wingerdstok Festival in Stellenbosch.
While Sampson was coming up like a rocket, all I remember was feeling a gentle swell of energy and my foggy head clearing. As we walked up a slope to the dancefloor in front of the stage, I suddenly realised with amazement that it hadn’t been an exhausting effort – I’d just glided up it. It had been nearly 5 years since I had last gone uphill anywhere without girding myself for it. I had forgotten what it felt like not to feel tired or achey all over. Everyone else was buzzing their tits off, I was just feeling ‘normal’. It was mind-blowing.
O how I danced.
Unfortunately, the euphoria of those pain-free energy-full couple of hours didn’t outweigh the PEM and total system onslaught the experience cost me, so it wasn’t something I was tempted to repeat.
(A few years later, I was to come to the same conclusion about childbirth.)
* * *
We were woken briefly by fireworks at midnight. Ruby and I mumbled ‘Happy New Year’ to each other over the headboard. In the tent, Sampson managed to comfort Monte straight back to sleep. But when he took him out early running after his bike, they got attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Has‘Sam’ the doctor had to stitch him up, poor feller.
When I woke at 8am I was soooooooo grateful that we’d chosen sleep instead of ‘party’ – it was wonderful to be upright and relatively free of pain. I felt my fingernails had finally gotten a hold on the slippery slope I’d been on the last few weeks: a few more days of this, I told myself, maybe I’d be back to walking.
At Marsa Shagra I started giving myself daily marks out of 10 in my diary, like I used to when I was first severely sick. Back in 1994/5, I did it to try and get a handle on things and boost myself with a sense of progress, even if it was minute. I soon noticed that, like back then, no matter how ghastly I was feeling or how much pain I was in, I never gave myself less than 5/10.
This wasn’t because I was trying to be brave, but because I always knew it could be a lot worse. Perhaps I also daren’t be honest with myself because the reality would be overwhelming. So 5/10 actually means dire. 6 means holding it together. 7 means merely lousy. 8 means I was up to Doing something! 9 is a day that felt amazingly productive or nearly not tired. In that state you would suspect you were going down with something and would consider having a day off work, but that’s a good day for me. This is why patient-assessed CBT criteria are often worthless: we are hoisted by our own petards of positivity.
While the Sampsons tumbled to get up and out for their first monitored dive at 10am, I did three short forms of T’ai Chi and was very chuffed to be up to it. Slowly and steadily, with rests in between, I washed up, tidied the truck and restored calm. I fielded conversations about our trek with an American family, and an Egyptian plastic surgeon called Ahmed who asked me: “Would I be welcome travelling Africa?” (“As a Muslim or Arab” his unspoken addendum.) “Please do it and let me know!” was my reply. We have it easy travelling as we do with our rucksack of white privilege, but in my experience, Africa is consistently more welcoming to all comers than any other continent is to Africans.
Mancunians Craig and Chantelle also popped in for a chat one day when I was cooking up our last veg – they have a 7 ton truck of their own, love diving and rate this place as their favourite. Craig left me £20 to treat the kids, bless him.
I tried not to be bruised by Sampson’s exhausting energy when he came bounding back in post-dive. I tried not to be hurt by his brutally honest and unwittingly exclusionary enthusiasm: “Best experience as a family ever” he announced, as they noshed voraciously.
As well as dives twice daily, Sampson was taking Monte running for kilometres on his bike, trying to get him exhausted enough to sleep all the way through the night. It was like having a toddler! Monte had doubled in size since landing in Egypt – we would never blag him onto the plane now. I was wondering how on earth we were going to manage if he carried on growing at this rate. He was already knocking me over; he didn’t mean to, his boundless enthusiasm was just a bit much for the truck and he didn’t know his own strength. I don’t know who he reminded me of…
With Monte outside in the tent with Sampson, I was getting exponentially more sleep. By 3rd Jan, I’d pulled myself up to 7 out of 10 and I woke the kids by boogying to Beyoncé in the kitchen – MOOD. To have even a little energy after so long without it is astonishing. I had lost a lot of fitness over the past couple of months as I’d been unable to walk, but the silver lining was that my enforced bedrest may have cured the bursitis in my hips I’d had since bouncing about at the Magic System gig in Dakar!
By the fourth day I was up to interviewing Mr Hossam Helmy. What a gorgeous soul. A stupendous story teller with an encyclopedic knowledge of the ocean here. Despite being a bear of a bloke, he giggles with full body delight like a little boy.
His passion for this place burns like a beacon, flickering through his eyes from a deep place inside. It has sustained him through 30 years of building up this business and fighting for the conservation of the area.
Mr Helmy had a very privileged upbringing. His father was a General of the coastguard, and after getting a law degree at police college, Hossam went straight to working as special forces security detail in the office of President Sadat. But when 7 years later Sadat was assassinated, Hossam lost faith in his role. His father advised him to wait another 4 years, which he did – by which time, the General had passed on. When he handed in his notice, his disbelieving chief said “Not since Pharoah and Moses has anyone resigned from such a position”!
At 36, young Hossam took himself to America to learn how other places worked. In one year he had 17 jobs, and was fired from 12 of them!
“I was so spoiled. 21 years old and working in the presdient’s office, on intimate terms with ministers, living in a palace, 7 star hotels and Mercedes… I couldn’t make a cup of tea! I needed to change my life and work with my hands. I decided to go to America, the most advanced country in world, to learn how they became like that. I worked as a dishwasher, gardener, driver, in a supermarket, pizza delivery, barbecue place… I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Hossam hated Oregon snows and preferred the warmth of LA. He described how the ‘Egyptian way’ seeks to shrink tasks by cutting corners, rather than striving to become more efficient. He had us in stitches relating how he single-handedly destroyed all the photocopiers of the Navy in San Diego, after being sent to change a single ink cartridge, and how he managed to burn down a Mexican restaurant on his first day as Chef by piling four times as much wood in the clay oven rather than going out into the cold four times over four hours as he’d been told…
America, he said, taught him to be diligent, and logical.
On the plane back to Hurghada, Hossam and his friend sat next to a Dutch woman who was coming to work as a dive instructor in a resort, and they shared a taxi to her hotel. The next day she offered his friend a free dive. He eavesdropped on her instructions, walked into the dive office, helped himself to equipment and took himself in.
This chutzpah has sustained him. On his first diving safari he and Dutch diving teacher Karin travelled the length of the Red Sea coast from Shaam el Sheikh to Quseir. They were forbidden to go any further south because the easiest way to patrol the open border was to block the road here. Hossam used his contacts to get permission for Red Sea Diving Safari (a business than didn’t yet exist) to go in to the Marsa Alam area. It was 1989.
He found 37 unexplored breaks in the reef that allowed pristine diving conditions. For next 12 years he took visitors to each of these bays in turn, never more than 3 days at a time. He lived in a tent 2.8m x 2m – which is a very similar living area to the truck. I would’ve loved to interview his wife and ask her what she thought of this lifestyle choice – she married the son of a General after all, but ended up living 12 years in a tent, washing in water heated by the sun on black plastic bags and no electricity, only candlelight?!
When he arrived in Marsa Alam – an area the size of Switzerland – he was only the 19th inhabitant; now, thanks mostly to his enterprising spirit, its central town supports 11000 people. He chose the best 3 sites to develop: the ‘diamonds’ of Marsa Shagra, Marsa Nakari and Wadi Lahami, because they are closest to the best offshore reefs.
He told us that 62% of all sea life resides in coral, and only 38% of fish in the open sea. When he started, there were 818 documented species in the Red Sea; now there are 1453, with undiscovered species suspected to number up to 5000. “We discovered 4 ourselves!” he said grinning.
When I asked him about his proudest accomplishment, he pointed to the fact that his lawyer’s training allowed him to resist government pressure to expand to 1500 rooms at Shagra. “Over my dead body” will they exceed 120 rooms, maximum guests 250 and only 120 people per day allowed to access the house reef. “Coral is like the pyramids, this is our riches… This is the only thing of value we have, we have to save it.” He is very proud that reefs under his protection are amongst the only coral in the world where fish stocks are increasing not decreasing.
His ambition is to continue to bridge the divide between scientists and locals, and combine their fonts of knowledge to deliver environmental education to Egyptian teachers and ensure conservation laws are upheld by the next generation. Hossam also opened a school to ensure his adored grandson could continue living with him (Ahmed’s father is in NYC working for the UN). The school, which started with 12 students, now has 120 and offers free diving and full board to teachers to tempt them from higher salaries in Cairo!
Hossam was most upset to hear we were not eating in the restaurant – “but it’s the best food on the Red Sea coast!” – and insisted we try it that night.
So after I’d lain on the bed for an hour or so recovering energy, I put on jeans, socks and one of the cosy Red Sea Diving Safari hoodies he’d given us, and headed up to the restaurant – wow!
The next morning, I walked about 200m from the truck to the dive centre. After I’d sat quietly writing my diary recovering from the exertion, I walked back along the shore marvelling at the colour of the calm water over the reef, with blues from turquoise to cobalt. I was consciously banking images of the glittering sea in my brain for future use, so that when I am bedridden I can take them out, dust them off and feel the joy I felt today. I’ll be glad I travelled while I still could.
The restaurant went out of their way to accommodate my dietary restrictions. I was spoiled with a special spinach and onion mix, pumpkin with dill, paprika chicken – the wonderful food seemed to be making a difference to my strength.
Walking up to the restaurant for the third time in two days proved too much, I had to lie down on the dining chairs. It reminded me of when I first got ill in my twenties and hadn’t yet learned how to pace myself, how I would crash out in restaurants and end up with my head on the table because sitting up was impossible.
That was the night we watched Unrest, Jen Brea’s documentary on living with M.E. It had just been shortlisted for an Oscar, and has done an enormous amount since to raise awareness globally (now even offered as credit for medical students in US.) Jen’s story is very moving, as were the glimpses into lives of other people with M.E. around the world, but if I’m honest I was a little disappointed at the lack of scientific depth and clarity. I know I couldn’t expect a definitive explanation of the disease but I’d hoped at least for a comprehensive summary of symptoms; I felt a lack of closure.
But of course this was just Jen’s account of the first couple of years of her illness and, in her moderate to severe state, she couldn’t be expected to reflect anything more than that. She had devoted every ounce of her limited energy to expressing it to the best of her ability and I couldn’t but be grateful.
Unrest did allow Zola to realise it wasn’t just me with these bizarre symptoms, and the mother/daughter story featured was invaluable for spelling out the inheritance risk to Ruby (which she’d spent most of the year poopooing whenever I expressed concern about how she was pushing herself doing too much studying on too little sleep).
But there was a shocking lack of response from Sampson. Not a comment or a hug or a single sign of empathy. I was quite befuddled. His silence was so deafening, even Ruby commented on it.
I woke at 1am with my brain shouting at me: if I want to widen understanding about M.E. and fill in the gaps, I have to take responsibility for raising consciousness myself. Particularly around the African impact of this debilitating disease – what happens to people with invisible illnesses in invisible countries?
Monte-free, I slept on and on till 10am and felt almost miraculously better. It was my first day without pain or extreme dizziness since arriving here. Marsa Shagra food was definitely helping, thought I don’t know which was more bolstering – the extra protein or the break from cooking!
On this final day, we pulled off the video shoot of the Saving Water with the Sampsons script I had written in Croatia 2 months before as an educational tool for Cape schools during the drought. Day Zero was now predicted for April and water restrictions were being tightened on a monthly basis. If you look carefully, you can see me gradually wilting over the course of 4 hours’ filming – I’m lying down on that bed because I can’t stand up any longer.
Zola was initially not keen: he didn’t mind doing the Simpsons parody intro on his unicycle, but flatly refused to read his speaking part. I tried to persuade him but it was Big Sister encouragement that worked – he ended up being a complete natural and acing it. (His disgust that Capetonians could not manage to live on 87L water per day is not feigned – he was genuinely shocked that anybody would struggle with even 50L. That’s when I knew my kids were going to survive OK, no matter what.)
We spent a golden week at Marsa Shagra and were only charged for 5 days’ camping – all our dive costs and the two extra days and superb restaurant food was gifted gratis. A thousand thanks to Mr Helmy and manager Mr Rafiq for their generosity. We left on Coptic Christmas day Jan 7th so we’re sorry we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to George who was enjoying his holiday!
Red Sea Diving Safari is the most proactively eco-tourist destination we have experienced while travelling Africa Clockwise so far. The house reef at Marsa Shagra is world class, the diving, food and accommodation superb, the atmosphere always relaxed. But best of all is the passion of the people who run the place – it is tangible in all things and you leave feeling more optimistic, your soul refreshed. If this is possible, maybe humans can save the planet after all!
Marsa Shagra meals soon became just a happy memory, but we comforted ourselves that first night back on the road with a strawberry-based supper – by now, we were buying 3 kilos at a time! They were simply delicious with crumbly Egyptian white cheese and fresh coriander…